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Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella in the courtroom of the Supreme Court of Canada, in Ottawa, Nov. 4, 2019.

CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Germany has given Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, a national decoration.

The award, given by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is known as the Knight Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit (with badge and star). It is in the second-highest category of federal German decorations; the highest category is reserved for heads of state.

Sabine Sparwasser, Germany’s Ambassador to Canada, said in an interview that Germany wished to honour Justice Abella for the way she has drawn lessons from the Holocaust about the need to protect minority rights and the rule of law. She also cited Justice Abella’s work in fostering a relationship and visits between Germany’s Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Canada.

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“She was born in Germany, and now Germany, the country that deprived her father and her mother of family and made them suffer so much, this country bows to her, really,” Ms. Sparwasser said. “She is an outstanding woman of such high intellectual achievement, a fantastic work ethic and at the same time an incredibly wonderful woman with huge generosity and so much love.”

Ms. Sparwasser said she knows of only one resident of Canada who has received the award, environmentalist Elisabeth Mann Borgese, daughter of Nobel laureate for literature Thomas Mann; she taught for many years at Dalhousie University in Halifax. The award is mostly given to Germans, Ms. Sparwasser said, but foreigners are eligible – filmmaker Steven Spielberg is among those who have received it.

Justice Abella was born in a displaced-persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, on July 1, 1946. Her father, Jacob Silberman, was trained as a lawyer in Poland, but when Germany invaded, he was barred from working in his profession. He and his wife, Fanny (Krongold) Silberman, were sent to separate work camps. Their two-year-old son, plus Mr. Silberman’s parents and three younger brothers, were murdered in the Treblinka death camp. When they emigrated to Canada, Mr. Silberman could not practice law, as he was not yet a Canadian citizen. Justice Abella has said she went into law because she found it unjust that her father could not practice his profession.

The judge described her thoughts and emotions when Ms. Sparwasser informed her of the award. “What a remarkably lucky life’s journey I’ve had,” she told The Globe and Mail. “How lucky I was to be able to grow up in Canada, which opened its doors to who I wanted to be, and who I became.

“And then to find that at the end of my professional life, Germany’s generosity closed the circle. It overwhelmed me. All of the history came rushing through. The improbability of it. The extraordinary way in which our two countries have changed over the years, how open they have become, and how I was the beneficiary of that openness.”

Justice Abella is the longest-serving current member of the Supreme Court, having been appointed in 2004. In her career, she has led a federal commission on employment equity, been a family court judge and written rulings on refugee law and religious freedom.

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